Almanac

News - May 11, 2011

Trying Menlo Park's downtown plan on for size

• Menlo Park to consider trial installations.

by Sandy Brundage

An environmental impact report revisits an idea for the development of Menlo Park's downtown and El Camino Real that was first floated in the draft specific plan — testing proposed changes with trial installations.

The report suggests the Santa Cruz Avenue central plaza as a potential test area. Associate Planner Thomas Rogers, who oversees the specific plan process, pointed to others, including the downtown pocket parks and sidewalk extensions along Santa Cruz Avenue.

He said San Francisco and Mountain View have already put trial installations into practice, and San Carlos plans to follow suit.

The idea became so popular in San Francisco that the city created a formal permitting process to allow the community to create its own trial "parklets," as part of its Pavement to Parks program, according to the city's website. So far, they've built nine, with more to come. The city estimated the cost at $5,000 to $10,000 per 20-foot segment.

"I've personally checked out several of them, and I can confirm they're pretty neat — extending a sidewalk even just a few feet can really open up the pedestrian space and create a warm, comfortable atmosphere, without significantly disrupting overall parking behavior," Mr. Rogers said in an email.

On Castro Street in Mountain View, he continued, the parallel parking spaces were designed to be level, so that restaurants could easily add outdoor seating. "I think many are more or less permanent at this point, but if a restaurant closes down and is replaced by some other retail, the planters can be removed very easily and the space used for parking again."

The idea met with approval from an unlikely source — Nancy Couperus, otherwise known as the driving force behind the Menlo Park Downtown Alliance, a group of around 118 merchants and property owners concerned about the specific plan.

"I would like to see this considered for all of the changes being proposed because it would allow the public and businesses to judge whether or not these changes actually are 'improvements' before they are made permanent," Ms. Couperus said.

Since the environmental impact report is just now circulating in public, it could be years before the city implements the specific plan. Mr. Rogers predicted that testing proposed changes would wait until the council takes action on the final report. He said that San Francisco's experience indicates that trial installations don't require full California Environmental Quality Act certification at first, because they can feasibly be dismantled to return the site to its original state.

If Menlo Park decides to leave them in place, they would ultimately need review, although that could be as simple as a negative declaration stating there's no evidence the installation has a significant environmental impact, he explained.

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